Sam Gagner has never been much of a back-seat driver.
Cast in a supporting role, the Edmonton Oilers centre has, at times, struggled to find his scoring touch and failed to live up to his first-round selection potential.
But as the lead, Gagner looks a very different player.
“I think that Sam has really worked hard on his game ever since he got here,” said Oilers head coach Tom Renney. “My exposure to him has been this year and last year, and all I’ve seen him do is try to get better every day. I think he’s done that and as someone that’s always been a good offensive player, he’s rounding himself into a solid two-way guy.”
With injuries to Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, Gagner has seen his responsibilities increase along with his ice time. The London, Ont., native has taken Horcoff’s spot between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and is so far making the most of the opportunity.
“It’s tough having those two out of the lineup,” Gagner said. “They’re a huge part of our team and our leadership group. Those are hard holes to fill, but if you have a pity attitude where you think our team is down and out because we’ve lost those two guys, it doesn’t help anybody.
“Everyone has that attitude where they know they’re going to be getting a little bit more opportunity and they seem to be rolling with it.”
Selected sixth overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Gagner, 21, made the immediate jump from junior to the NHL. He set the bar with an impressive rookie campaign, scoring 13 goals and adding 36 assists for 49 points in 79 games.
Gagner’s biggest success came towards the end of his rookie season when the Oilers were decimated with injuries and forced to go with a young lineup. The greenhorns nearly dragged the team into the playoffs.
Three seasons later, he finds himself in a similar scenario, but instead of playing with Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson, Gagner is with the Oilers’ two rookie sensations.
“I think it took us a few games to figure out what’s going to make us tick as a line,” Gagner said. “I think we’re still working things out and we’re talking a lot about what’s going to make us successful.”
In the Oilers 6-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, Gagner, Eberle and Hall combined for seven points.
The team’s top line of the future is currently putting up impressive numbers now. And Gagner, who is on pace to finally surpass the point totals of his rookie season, is playing as well as he ever has.
“I feel good, but I still feel like there is another level I want to get to,” he said. “There are games where I’m doing things the right way and there are games where I’m still falling off a bit.
“I still want to find that consistency every night, make sure I’m creating offence every night and being solid defensively. I feel like I’m getting better in my defensive zone and I want to keep improving on that and from there, offensive chances will come.”
In order to develop into the Oilers’ undeniable first-line centre, Gagner will need to excel at both ends of the ice.
“I don’t know where the end point is for Sam, there is tons of potential there,” Renney said. “You can certainly see flashes of a first-line centre. What he has to do is continue to move his feet and skate hard when it’s necessary. When it’s required he has to be an explosive player. When he’s doing that, he’s great, when he distributes the puck quickly, puts himself in a position to get it back, and continues to develop the offensive attack, he’s a very good player.”